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Dear Prime Minister Barak,

Since the inception of the international refugee system fifty years ago, three durable solutions have emerged under international law and refugee policy to enable refugees to put an end to their refugee status and re-establish an effective link with a state. These include voluntary repatriation to the refugee's country of origin; local integration in the country of asylum; or resettlement in a third country. HRW calls on Israel, a future Palestinian state, countries currently hosting stateless Palestinians, and the international community to ensure that individual refugees are able to make free and informed choices for themselves from among these three established precedents.

To this end, HRW urges Israel to recognize the right to return for those Palestinians, and their descendants, who fled from territory that is now within the State of Israel, and who have maintained appropriate links with that territory. This is a right that persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested or has changed hands.

If a former home no longer exists or is occupied by an innocent third party, return should be permitted to the vicinity of the former home. As in the cases of all displaced people, those unable to return to a former home because it is occupied or has been destroyed, or those who have lost property, are entitled to compensation. However, compensation is not a substitute for the right to return to the vicinity of a former home, should that be one's choice.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the Palestinian Authority to uphold the right to return. In the event of a future Palestinian state, Palestinians who have fled from that territory, and their descendants who have maintained appropriate links, are entitled to return and to receive compensation if they cannot return to their former home. While all Palestinians may well be able to make a case for obtaining Palestinian nationality, this should not diminish their claim to return to Israel if they or their families came from that area and they have maintained links there.

A future state of Palestine may find itself both a host country (for those refugees who fled from territory in what is now the State of Israel) and a country of return (for those seeking to exercise their right to return to its territory). As a host country it should offer refugees the possibility of full integration while also recognizing that some may wish to exercise their right to return to territory in Israel.

Palestinians with links to Israel or a future Palestinian state should also be allowed, at their option, to choose compensation in lieu of exercising their right to return.

Countries hosting Palestinian refugees should facilitate a durable solution by offering the option of full local integration to those Palestinians who may wish to remain. Given the long duration of the Palestinian diaspora, many Palestinians have developed strong ties to countries in which they now reside. Offering the option to remain and fully integrate in the host country would not diminish the right to return of the Palestinians. Rather, it would provide individuals with a greater freedom to choose living arrangements that may accord more with their current attachments and aspirations.

The international community also shares a responsibility for finding durable solutions to refugee situations and for preventing individuals from being rendered stateless. Consequently, states should be generous in offering the possibility of third-country resettlement to those Palestinians who may wish to exercise it, and in providing aid to assist the permanent settlement of those who choose to remain in the region as well as those who choose to exercise their right to return. Neither the options of local integration and third-country resettlement, nor their absence, should extinguish the right to return; their humanitarian purpose is to allow individual Palestinians to select during a specified period among several choices for ending their refugee status.

In addition, the international community should help to ensure that claims of a right to return are resolved fairly, that individual holders of the right are permitted freely and in an informed manner to choose whether to exercise it, that returns proceed in a gradual and orderly manner, and that any redress for past injustices not create new ones. In this context an internationally supported and funded independent determination mechanism or institution, such as UNHCR, should oversee and facilitate Palestinians' exercise of their right to choose one of the three options.

If carried out in good faith, a regulated absorption mechanism does not derogate from the right to return. However, every effort should be made to assess individual claims promptly and to ensure that return takes place as quickly as practical. Any limitations placed on the rate of return by either Israel or a future Palestinian state, if they are imposed, should not be so severe as to effectively extinguish the right to return.

Underlying our recommendation is our conviction that governments should meet their legitimate security concerns in a manner that is consistent with these principles and other internationally recognized human rights.

Mr. Prime Minister, HRW is cognizant that the right to return is a key outstanding issue between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. While this issue has been under debate for over half a century, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been prepared to address it openly only recently. HRW therefore urges that it is addressed within a rights-based framework that would permit individual Palestinians the ability to make free and informed choices from among the three options outlined above. While we make no claim that a rights-based approach pre-empts consideration of the national security concerns of the parties involved, we do believe that it offers the best chance to reach a lasting peace.

I have taken the liberty of sending a similar message to Chairman Arafat and President Clinton, and remain ready to meet with you or your delegation to further clarify the recommendations made in this letter or to discuss these issues further.

Yours sincerely,
Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

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